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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 6


Willy Loman’s Long Night’s Journey Into Day

Susan C. W. Abbotson
Rhode Island College

Few studies place O’Neill and Miller on the same page (and critics like Simon and Brustein would be appalled at the very suggestion). But a close comparison between their two most seminal plays, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman, suggests that these two playwrights may be more similar than previously considered—at least in how they create their dramatic worlds. It is common knowledge that both family groups were closely based on personal family members (O’Neill’s own self, parents, and brother; Miller’s Uncle, Aunt and sons), and the synchronicity between the four members of the Tyrone family and the Loman household is striking. Both playwrights, through these plays, point toward dark disconnections between family members caused by both personal and social constraints, and offer their own particular assessment of what can or cannot be done about such situations based on their own outlooks—it is in this aspect, alone, they may slightly differ.

While A Long Day’s Journey Into Night was completed in 1942, because of O’Neill’s attempts to keep it locked away until 25 years after his death, it was not brought to public view until 1956 and so Miller cannot have known about it when writing Death of a Salesman during 1948. O’Neill’s 1946 play, The Iceman Cometh, with its down at heels hardware salesman, Hickey, might seem to offer more of an inspiration for Willy Loman, a connection that has been considered by others. And yet, despite the impossibility of Miller being privy to Long Day’s Journey before writing Salesman, close similarities between the plays remain intriguing. Given time restraints, I can only uncover the tip of this particular iceberg, but will hopefully raise a few interesting observations.

Each play is centered on a lived-in home—the Tyrone’s New London summer house and the Loman’s Brooklyn residence—and in each case this home, as Jose Gonzalez suggests of the Tyrone dwelling, “is presented as a powerful magnet which draws its inhabitants to reminisce about their past” (451). In both cases, decisions have been made in that past, that have seriously reduced the potential of everyone in the present, and those moments continue to haunt—in Willy’s case, almost literally, as he doesn’t just relate those moments, but actively relives them. Two grown sons have returned to their parent’s house to spark what Gonzalez calls “the see-sawing of emotions” (451) that Arnold Goldman identified as the “underlying movement of an O’Neill drama” (29), which I would suggest is no less evident in Miller’s work. This “see-sawing” conveys an ambivalence in the characters’ relationships that fluctuates between love and hate, hope and despair.  When Linda Ben-Zvi writes of O’Neill creating “personae who long to escape the imprisonment they feel within the microcosmic world of the family and the macrocosmic world of twentieth century materialistic society; who feel the weight of sin, and desire surcease from its burden; who seek if not nobility at least a life of purpose; and who yearn to be unhindered and unrestrained” (16), could she not just as easily have been writing about the Lomans? Jeffrey Mason has described the Lomans as being “spiritually trapped in the salesman’s house” as they “search for the truth of their condition, but they are fundamentally alienated from such an understanding as the house is from the surrounding, encroaching apartment buildings” (99). The Tyrone’s home is similarly isolated and encroached upon by the mounting fog, a fog in which they lose their way as do the Lomans, as they all strive, and ultimately fail, to find those missing purposes and properly connect with one another.

In designing Salesman, Miller had been concerned with devising a style whereby he could show how the past continuously impinges on the present. O’Neill was no less focused on this Ibsenian trait, as Norman Berlin asserts, while commenting on the way the Tyrone’s tend to repeat themselves: “the play’s main theme is that ‘the past is the present,’ to use Mary’s words. Repetition is exactly that, the past in the present” (147). Through the play’s performance, Berlin recognizes that “we are experiencing the past in the present with an immediacy that only theater can bring,” thus making the audience a kind of “extended family” (147). “As an audience,” he concludes, “we share in the experiences of the Tyrone’s because it is a significantly lived experience, complex and passionate, mirroring the experience of all of us, loving and hating, accusing and regretting, part of a family but still alone as we approach our night” (153). Might this not be the same reaction people had to Salesman, as they sat sobbing in the aisles at its close? Robert Martin has used similar language to describe what he sees as Miller’s ability to convey “felt experience” though his characterizations in Salesman.

Both plays follow a similar dynamic—presenting us with a family who initially appear to be coping, but increasingly evident undercurrents introduce mysteries we have to solve to understand more fully the pressures that are, in fact, inevitably tearing these families apart. Money, or rather the desire to be wealthy and successful, lies at the heart of both family’s dissolution—and none seem able to escape its effects. As Robert Simpson McLean points out, in a recent review of Long Day’s Journey, paraphrasing Mary’s assertion: “Everyone is a victim in the Tyrone family . . . and they cannot help what life has made of them” (215).  Jeffrey Mason similarly suggests that Salesman depicts, “the hopeless history of those who never really had a chance” (99).

Looking more closely at the individuals who make up these doomed families, Linda can be viewed as a version of the marriage-bound Mary, both blissfully unaware of the possibility of leaving their husbands, however neglectful they become. Like Mary, Linda appears to have no friends outside the home, and must live vicariously through her sons and husband, the latter of whom she continuously enables in his false dreams of his own importance, while being sucked dry as a reward. Mary, likewise, married out of love, even as she acknowledges how neglectful he has been since then. However badly they are treated, their love and dependence on their husbands keeps them bound. Both are left home as their families head out to eat and drink, and both fail in their attempts to bring their husband and sons into agreement. Each defends their husband against their sons. Mary chastises Jamie,  “Stop sneering at your father! I won’t have it! You ought to be proud you’re his son! He may have his faults. Who hasn’t? But he’s worked hard all his life” (52), while Linda points out to Biff and Happy that they’d never swap their father for Charley, even while she admits “I don’t say he’s a great man . . . He’s not the finest character that ever lived,” continuing on, “you tell me he has no character? The man who never worked a day but for your benefit” (57). These speeches seem almost interchangeable. While Mary withdraws from the conflict into her morphine haze, Linda takes sides, rejecting both sons in favor of a husband, who then leaves her alone by committing suicide.

By the close of Salesman Linda cannot even cry as she stands by her husband’s grave, she has been so emptied by her experiences. Guerin Bliquez views her a “failure as a wife and mother” (384), while Matthew Roudané, more kindly, describes her as being “marginalized” by the masculine world of the play (24). Meanwhile, Mary, too, gives up on her family,  declaring that her husband is “as bad as Jamie or Edmund” (107), before escaping from her unhappy reality into a drug induced fantasy. Both women have the final say in their respective plays, and they use this to convey their sense of isolation and desolation—Mary, lost in her memory of first meeting the man who would inevitably ruin her life, and Linda, equally lost, with no-one left to whom she can go home.

Moving on to the eldest son: Biff and Jamie are only one year apart—Jamie at 33 and Biff 34. While it seems tempting to see Happy as an adaptation of the philandering Tyrone sibling, Jamie and Biff, actually, have the more in common. Both are the elder of two brothers and seem to have a closer relationship to their mother—each showing concern for her over themselves; and each has to experience their mother’s rejection. Both, also, simultaneously love and hate their father—wanting his approval, yet despising his self-involvement and high self-opinion. Both ruin their own lives trying to escape from under his shadow, being drawn to alcohol, loose women, and, in Biff’s case, even crime. Both have failed at everything they’ve tried. Jamie has much of the younger O’Neill in him—the man who ran off to Buenos Aires in 1910 to escape the responsibilities of a wife and child, and where he spent what Andrew Graham Yooll describes as “an awful, drunken, derelict nine months” (95). Like Biff, he had no qualifications and found it tough to get a job, and even tougher to hold one down. He took on a series of short-term positions, slept on park benches, and was even threatened with arrest as a vagrant (Yooll 98). These experiences no doubt gave O’Neill much insight into Jamie’s dissolute character, but Miller catches a similar personality by drawing on the experiences of his cousin, Buddy Newman. (If any character in the play could be said to represent Miller, it would have to be the neighbor Bernard, for although Miller had, like Biff, been an athlete who paid little attention to his high school studies, he was also a hard worker, like Bernard, who focused on getting ahead and did so, though talent and consistent effort). Biff tells us that he has had “twenty or thirty different kinds of jobs since I left home” (22) and admits he has wasted his life: “I’m a bum,” he declares (128); “I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail” (131).

Stephen Black suggests that Jamie’s biggest problem is that “From his father he cannot separate himself; from his mother he will not,” (65), which leads to his evident “inability to grow into ordinary adult independence” (66). Biff suffers from the same bind. Like Jamie, he, too, is disturbed when he sees himself acting like his father, and is embarrassed by his inability to be financially independent of him. Like Jamie, he also worships his mother—even while she turns on him, and in a sense, betrays his regard. Both stagnate in their frustration, and make no apparent progress. For while Eric Sterling asserts that “Biff is freed by Willy’s death to “seek a future that is appropriate for him” (9), that seems less certain when viewing him as a doppelganger for Jamie.  Michael Meyer rightly questions Biff’s supposed final improvement, pointing out how his earlier “stumbling, indecisive moments of self-awareness and self-condemnation . . . instill mistrust in the audience concerning Biff’s supposed 180 degree turnaround as the play draws to a close,” with Biff’s so called reform being “merely another phase that will be followed by another setback” (132-33). Although Meyers then recants, and argues that the Requiem depicts a changed Biff who is “no longer confused” (133), that is by no means certain. While we know from A Moon for the Misbegotten, what fate awaits Jamie, there has been much debate over whether or not Biff’s future holds any hope for improvement; William Aarnes suggests that while Biff shows growth, he will most likely achieve little, being content to be nothing (105), and will return to what Mason describes as, “the shame of a dollar an hour” (99). Meyers postulates that this nothingness is only defined as such by the dominant culture of success that Biff has rejected, so may, from another perspective be sufficient.

But let us consider what Biff chooses, and what Miller may intend through the way in which he presents this choice. In late 1940s America, Biff chooses a pastoral life—as defined by that opening flute. If we equate this flute to the aural motif with which O’Neill begins his play, the warning sound of a foghorn (an opening note Miller himself will sound in A View from the Bridge), a symbol of approaching danger and catastrophe, then we might want to reassess how we should view Biff’s pastoral ideal. Both fog and flute seduce characters into an attractive but fake world. The Tyrones become lost in their fog, so too, might Biff become lost in his dream. Consider how Miller depicts life on the range with those sad-sack cowboys in The Misfits: this pastoral dream may be appealing, but in the real world it’s a dead end. Biff is, after all, 34 years old, and still blaming his father for his own failures in life: “I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody! That’s whose fault it is!” (131). He’s a grown man, whining about a course of behavior he chose to follow. Willy has spent a lifetime being ordered around and now owns his own house and has a loving wife and two sons—Biff, in contrast, has nothing.

Biff may also seem an echo of the younger Tyrone, that lost soul, Edmund. Biff is described at one point as “a poet” as he describes his vision of working on a ranch, similar to Edmund’s vision of transcendence out at sea. Both claim to have found a release out in nature, but both claims may be seen as equally nebulous and phantasmagoric. Gonzalez calls Edmund’s vision as “a paradise glimpsed but actually beyond the horizon” (456), just as the Edenic ideal that permeates American desire. While Biff may have things in common with Edmund, his younger brother, Happy is the more precise comparison. After all, Happy, like Edmund, must suffer from the overlooked younger brother syndrome and he is, in his own way, just as lost as his brother. While Happy’s sickness may be seen as more metaphoric, he is no less fatally ill, and doing everything he can to encourage his own dissipation. Both younger brothers yearn for a freedom they can never truly possess. Black describes Edmund as being different from Jamie, because he can “hold love, hatred, and other, less extreme feeling toward his father, and hold them all at once” (66), which is much the way Happy reacts to Willy, one minute pleading for attention, the next denying Willy is even his father. Like Happy, Edmund also needs his father to acknowledge him. Black suggests, “Edmund demands that his father be a man of whom his son can be proud, one upon whom he can model himself and so complete his own delayed growth into manhood and independence” (66). Happy’s final speech reflects a similar intent: “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have—to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him” (139). Both are evidently misguided in this desire to emulate their fathers. Of the four family members, they may be the ones who seem closest to being able to strike it out alone and become independent, but, as Luc Gilleman suggests, both Loman boys fail to escape the past—merely playing out a cyclical repetition of the previous generation: Biff taking on Ben’s role, striking out on his own, while “Happy, like Willy, will remain behind and dream” and Linda is “lost between these two visions of maculinity” (160). There is little to suggest that Edmund can escape a similar fate as he ends drinking himself into oblivion beside his father.

Willy can certainly be viewed as an alternative James Tyrone. Christopher Bigsby, interestingly describes Willy, as “an actor who has increasingly lost his audience. His life is a falsehood” (123). Both are men with grand ambition, and an over-blown sense of self-worth, who poison those around them with their deceits and expectations. Both have been married forever, though are frequently out on the road (both, one could argue, selling themselves while out there). Both love their wives, but are over-dependent on them for admiration to feed their fragile egos, and they sadly neglect them. Both ride their sons unfairly, demanding they emulate their own success (which is less than they will admit), and even while they love them, too, ultimately estrange them.

However, while the Woman calls Willy “the saddest, self-centeredest soul I ever did see-saw” (116), this is not how he ends, and although James Tyrone cannot escape his long day’s journey into night, ending up drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Willy, undergoes the reverse process, experiencing a long night’s journey into day; as events culminate in his transcendence of failure. This illustrates the key difference between O’Neill and Miller—hope. While O’Neill has been accused of evoking “a pessimism rarely equaled in Western literature” (LaBelle 436), Miller told Mel Gussow that he saw Salesman as being “suffused, oddly enough, with hope” (195). Deborah Cosier Solomon explores this possibility, asserting that the play “celebrates spiritual success” rather than financial, citing the “system of love” that underpins the relationship between Willy and Biff. She only sees this love as emanating from Biff, and Miller admits that Biff’s gift of love to Willy symbolizes an important moment of hope: “Willy” Miller explains, “is a lover forsaken and seeking a lost state of grace, and the great lift of the play is his discovery, in the unlikeliest moments of threat and conflict, that he is loved by his boy” (Salesman in Beijing 247). But Biff loses this moment in what Luc Gilleman has described as his “petty” (160) rejection of his father in the Requiem. Solomon mistakenly suggests that Willy’s suicide depicts “the inevitable culmination of his habitual self-delusion and evasion” (142), but the true hope of the play is brought forward, as Robert Martin suggests, through Willy’s sacrifice for his son. Buoyed by the realization that his favorite son still loves him, Willy chooses to sacrifice himself, in order to provide for that son—thus reciprocating and validating that love.

Martin explains how: “Willy’s life and suicide [may be] perceived by his wife and sons as full of pathos,” but Willy allows the audience to see more in his death that raises him to tragic status through his “sense of idealism and his will to succeed against all odds” (100). Willy’s death, Martin rightly insists, indicates “joy, pride, and optimism for the future of his son Biff” (100). Willy escapes his past failure and  moves on—giving us both a fully tragic hero, and hope. In contrast, James (much like O’Neill himself--Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room") gives up and ends in despair—remaining in his self-imposed purgatory.

To conclude, as Martin suggests, Willy chose action “heroically on his own terms in trying to provide for his son” (102), and the success or not of this attempt is immaterial. The point, Martin asserts, is that “Willy regains faith in himself” (104). “The knowledge,” Martin explains, “that Biff loves him, despite their past differences, allows Willy to achieve a moral victory, which, for Miller, is the stuff of tragedy” (104); next to this, the Tyrones, clearly fail to raise their condition beyond pathos. 


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